I’ve written about my fascination with French films before. It isn’t as if I believe they have any particular ‘hold’ on any particular genre that other nations can’t touch; but their filmmakers do seem to have a particular grasp on films exploring sexual awakening, and those films do look and feel unlike other features they release around the world. Despite my honest attempts at research into the subject matter or even my noble efforts to sound off on what makes them different, the whole topic still escapes me in ways many other nations’ flicks don’t. Basically (to me), it boils down to the fact that the French try to explore sexual themes (especially awakening) in a way that pairs bold honesty with an almost devil-may-care routineness until whatever lesson meant to be learned rises to the surface … or uncompromisingly destroys everyone in the process.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “After losing her virginity, 17-year-old budding beauty Isabelle (Marine Vacth) takes up a secret life as a call girl, meeting older gentlemen clients for erotic hotel room trysts. But throughout her sexual escapades Isabelle remains curiously aloof, showing little interest in the encounters themselves or the money she makes from them. What then does Isabelle hope to gain by offering her body up to the whims of strangers?”
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL is a coming-of-age drama the way only the French does them, especially when it comes to sex. While the film bristles with an obvious eroticism, it isn’t what I’d call explicitly erotic in any way necessarily (certainly not like most Hollywoodesque softcore yet mainstream thrillers tend to be) but instead tries to maintain an honest impartial look at the 17-year-old’s carnal shenanigans. Director Francois Ozon never judges his protagonist; instead, he allows her full rein to explore what sex is while capturing it with an almost every-day lingering glance behind-the-curtains.
For example, Ozon gives us a scene early in the picture – Isabelle’s younger brother peeks at his older sister undressing to sunbathe on a public beach, and later he watches her (briefly) masturbating quietly in her bedroom through a door slightly ajar – and I think that’s all he as a storyteller intends: these aren’t meant to be hot and heavy moments necessarily inspiring viewers to search out similar exploits on their own. Instead, he films sex and/or sexual-related moments with an air of casual detachment, much the same way Isabelle has found herself in an endless spiral of living life from one encounter to the next. They don’t mean anything … until they do.
Despite her best intentions, she finds herself curiously drawn to a vastly older man, Georges – one old enough to be her grandfather – after consenting to one closed-door meeting. While it’s clear she has other repeat customers (she’s certainly at no loss for business), Isabelle struggles to find whatever meaning their intimacy might have beyond just lustful escape for the both of them. He treats her warmly in an old-school gentlemanly way despite the nature of their business relationship (unlike the other men she sees), and from this she begins to understand what a mature, adult relationship might very well look like. It may not be correct. It may not be even remotely accurate. But as one merely trying to make her way from adolescence into adulthood in the sanest way she’s been able to find on her own it works for her; that’s why the tragedy resulting from their coupling leaves an impression with her.
Once the credits roll, we still don’t know what kind of an adult she’ll eventually mature into. However, it’s clear the choices she’s made have given her a markedly different perspective on life than her still partying youthful peers. As wrong as her track may’ve been, it may’ve given her an education worth something more than the accumulation of hundred dollar bills secreted away in her clothing closet.
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL (2013) is produced by Mandarin Films, Mars Distribution, France 2 Cinema, FOZ, Canal+, and a whole host of others (if you’re that interested, then head on over to IMDB.com and check out the full listing). DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by MPI Media Group under the Sundance Selects label. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a French-spoken-language release with English subtitles available. (There is no English-dubbed track.) As for the technical specifications? Director Francois Ozon knows how to deliver some superb sights and sounds to accompany the themes of his major motion picture. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features, there sadly are none of the disc.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I’m being perfectly honest when I say that the French truly have cornered the market on making love stories that look like YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL, and I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the way they approach it all with such a free-wheeling honesty about sex, sexual awakening, and carnal discovery. Perhaps it’s the way they capture their woman on film, with a kind of natural honesty and/or wholesome freshness. Or perhaps it’s the way they approach the topic of lust eventually somehow or some way inevitably leading to self-awareness. I really don’t know. I just know YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL when I see it.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with a DVD copy of YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.